Proper 19A

September 08, 2014

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    Matthew 18:21-35

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Exodus 14:19-31

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 114

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • Lectionary Epistle

    Romans 14:1-12

    Author: Stan Mast

    Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider

             One of my favorite old hymns is “I Will Sing of My Redeemer,” which ends with “on the cross he sealed my pardon, paid the debt, and made me free.”  Today there is a great deal of theological controversy about that phrase “paid the debt.”  Any satisfaction theory of the atonement is rejected almost out of hand by many mainstream Christians.  On the other hand, that last phrase is very much in sync with the various liberation theologies of our day.  But I wonder how many of our liberated congregants understand the depth and breadth of the freedom we have in Christ.  Jesus once said, “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”  (John 8:36)  But what does that mean in the details of daily life?

                Throughout our study of Romans this summer, we have heard the apostle Paul expanding on those words of Jesus, explaining in great detail this wonderful thing he calls “the glorious freedom of the children of God.” (Romans 8:21)  We are free, says Paul, from sin and from condemnation, from all powers both human and demonic, from death and hell, even from the law of God.  We are gloriously, radically free.  Martin Luther said, “A Christian is a most free lord of all, subject to none.”

                But it is not easy to live free.  Indeed, down through the ages Christians have tended to swing between two extremes with respect to this matter of freedom.  On the one extreme is anti-nomianism, the anti-law movement, which leads to libertinism, the belief that we are free to do whatever we want to do.  That, in turn, results in a new bondage to sin.  On the other extreme is legalism, the law and order movement, which leads to self-righteousness and a judgmental attitude toward others.  That ends in a new bondage to guilt. Those are the two sides of the teeter totter that Christians have ridden through the centuries, now libertines, then legalists, as we try to find a balanced way to live free.

    This problem is as old as the New Testament.  So it was natural that Paul would close his great treatise on freedom with this explanation of how we can live free.  Here in Romans 14 and 15 he deals with what John Calvin called “the adiaphora,” the indifferent matters of the Christian faith, matters that are not central to our identity as Christians, even though at times they may feel that way.  Paul calls them “disputable matters” in verse 1.  They are disputable because the Bible speaks about them in different places in ways that are difficult to square with each other, so that Christians on both sides of an issue can appeal to the Word of God for support.  What kind of matters?  Well, matters like food and days, specifically unholy food and holy days.

    What kind of food may a Christian eat?  It was a burning question in the early church.  It’s easy to understand why.  Christianity grew out of Judaism with all its dietary regulations, rules given by God himself in the early days of Israel’s history.  God’s people could not eat pork, for example, or shrimp.  Many early Christians were Jews who carried all of their previous training right into Christianity with them.  God had once said, “No pork BBQ and no shrimp cocktail.”  To these Jewish Christians, therefore, it was a matter of declaring “God said it, we believe it, and that settles it.”

    The same went for holy days.  Long ago, in the Old Testament, God had set up a schedule for holy observances, not the least of which was the weekly Sabbath.  That day was even in the summary of all covenant obligations, the Ten Commandments.  It was a no brainer for these Jewish Christians.  Of course, you keep the Jewish Sabbath, and the other holy days.  Yes, Christians believe that Jesus was the promised Messiah.  And we know that we are saved by faith in him.  But we also have to keep those old rules, because God gave them to us. It’s very simple, said these Jewish Christians, for anyone who can read the Bible and who takes it seriously as the Word of God.

    Well, in fact, it’s not that simple, said Paul, a Jew himself.  It’s not that simple, because God has set us free from those kinds of ceremonial regulations. When Christ came, he changed things dramatically, because he was the fulfillment of all those things.  Here’s how Paul put it in Col. 2:16, “Therefore, do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, or a new moon celebration, or a Sabbath day.  These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.”

    So don’t sweat holy days and unholy food.  In Christ, all days are holy.  And remember what God said to Peter in Acts 10.  “Don’t call unclean what I have called clean.”  You are free from all that stuff that used to hem in your life.  In Jesus Christ, you are free to enjoy your pork BBQ and your shrimp cocktail at a picnic on a Sunday afternoon.  You are free, gloriously and radically free.  All Christians should know that “when the Son makes you free, you are free indeed.”  It’s really very simple.

    But, of course, it wasn’t that simple in Rome.  It never is when you are dealing with these “disputable matters,” “the adiaphora.”  So how do we deal with these issues of Christian freedom—clamp down with a law, or lighten up and do what we want?

    A few years ago Dr. Stephen Carter of Yale University said that the answer to the disputes that divide society was civility.  In his book, Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy, he pointed out that America is experiencing a terrible problem with freedom.  We have freedom of speech, for example, guaranteed to us by our Bill of Rights.  We have a perfect right to speak whatever we want, theoretically.  The problem is that an unbridled expression of that right can hurt other people and even destroy society.  That’s exactly what is happening today in America.  We are suffering from the elevation of self-expression over self-control.  Everyone feels free to say whatever they want.  They have a right, after all.

    Dr. Carter said that the answer to what ails the body politic is civility.  In place of the cynicism and selfishness that are destroying democracy, we need the combination of generosity and trust that comprises civility.  I love his definition of civility—“the set of sacrifices we make for the sake of our fellow passengers.”  That’s what we need in American today.

    Paul’s solution sounds a little like that on the surface.  He talks about the strong and the weak.  The strong are those who fully understand the implications of the Gospel for the Christian life.  The weak are those whose faith has not grown to the point where they are comfortable with freedom and still feel the need for the old laws and rules.  Here’s what he says to the strong– “do not look down on the weak.”  I think we all know what he means—the smug smile of sophistication that whispers its disdainful contempt for those “poor, simple, uneducated, immature believers.”  On the other hand, the weak must not “judge” the strong.  Again, we all know about that—the self-righteous frown that fairly growls a condemnatory judgment of “those liberal Bible twisters who don’t take the Bible seriously anymore.”  Paul says to the weak and the strong, “Don’t do that, either of you.”  Sounds like civility, doesn’t it?  But it’s not.  It is much deeper than that.

    You see, the problem with civility, or with any other social practice or law is this, How can we get people to be civil?  Why should I?  Why should I voluntarily limit my radical freedom?  How can we motivate people to balance their own freedom with concern for others?  How can we persuade people who are convinced they are right to take a step back as they deal with their “opponents?”  Here’s where the Gospel of Jesus Christ has the answer.  The answer is precisely that—Jesus Christ.  That is what Paul explains in Romans 14:1-12.

    Here’s the bottom line, the main point of the passage before us today.  It’s not up to you to judge a fellow Christian.  That judgment is up to God in Christ and, says Paul in verse 3, God has already accepted the person with whom you so strongly disagree.  Paul is talking there about the great doctrine of justification, which teaches that God has accepted us as sinners, just-as-if we had never sinned, because of what Jesus did for us.  Indeed, God has accepted us so completely that we who were slaves to sin are now servants of God, because of Jesus.  Jesus is our Master. And we have no business judging the servants of another Master.

    Furthermore, expanding on that business of masters, verse 8 says that “we belong to Jesus.”  He died and rose for us, so that whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord Jesus Christ.  That person you want to write out of the church belongs to Jesus.  That person whose views you simply cannot accept because they seem so clearly un-biblical belongs to Christ.

    Finally, says verse 10, here’s the ultimate reality.  One day each of us will stand before the judgment of God.  Rather than looking down on each other in these disputes we have over the adiaphora, we should look up to the only one who has a right to make such judgments.  Verse 12 says, “So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God.”  That should be our concern—not arguing our brother into the ground, not exercising our freedom, but living in a way that demonstrates that Jesus is our Lord and Master and Judge.  We are radically free from all the stuff that ruins human life, but we are also finally accountable to the One who “paid the debt, and made me free.”

    Verse 5 makes all of this very practical. Make sure your own conscience is clear.  Be sure you are really convinced about your own point of view.  The way to gauge that is to ask if you can honestly give thanks for what you do.  Do you genuinely see this side of ribs, or this ice cold beer, or this round of golf on Sunday afternoon as a gift of God, and thus a good thing?  Can you look up to Christ, your Lord and Master and Judge and say, “Thanks for this“?

    Of course, it is very possible to fool ourselves in matters of conscience.  So the ultimate thing is this. Make sure that your first concern is Jesus—not your freedom, not that other person with whom you disagree, but your Lord Jesus Christ.  If he is the Lord, the center of your life, he can be the fulcrum that will keep you from tottering back and forth between libertinism and legalism.  He will give you a firm center on which you can balance your freedom with your love.  That’s what Paul means in verses 6 and 7 with the repeated phrase “to the Lord.”  Be sure that whatever you do—whether it’s eating or not eating, observing special days or not, having pork BBQ and a shrimp cocktail on a Sunday afternoon picnic or keeping kosher in strict Sabbath observance—be sure that you do it “to the Lord.”

    Illustration Idea

              If you think this first century text is irrelevant to our sophisticated contemporary church, you haven’t sat between a committed vegan and a dedicated hunter at a church potluck.  And you haven’t played golf with a friend who ruins every round with a tirade about the sloppy clothing his fellow church members wear to Sunday worship.  And you haven’t had to referee a worship war in which an entire congregation is divided over the question of which kind of music best glorifies God and edifies the people.  And you haven’t seen your Sunday crowds decimated by the absence of dozens of families who dedicate the day to AAU sports rather than service to God.

    If you think that the question of adiaphora died with John Calvin, you aren’t paying attention to the contemporary church.  These disputable matters give us the opportunity, not to win the argument, but to preach Christ as Lord and Master and Judge.  It will take courage to address these things, but we can’t let the traditions of the past or the pressures of the culture rob our people of their radical freedom in Christ.  We are free both from rigid 17th century Sabbattarianism and from rabid 21st century sportism.  Christ is the Lord of the Sabbath—not ancient rules or the AAU.